What Johns Hopkins Gets by Buying the Newseum

The university, which already has a significant presence in Washington, D.C., hopes to expand its influence in public-policy debates—and entice prospective students with another reason to enroll.

exterior of the Newseum
Tim Sloan / AFP / Getty

The Newseum was in dire financial straits, and needed a way out. Johns Hopkins University had four buildings in Washington, D.C., and was looking to expand its presence in the capital while consolidating into one space. That the Newseum’s prime property is located within blocks of the U.S. Capitol only helped. On Friday, the university announced that it would be buying the 250,000-square-foot building; the museum is now looking for a new home.

In an interview, Ronald Daniels, the president of Johns Hopkins, told me that the purchase is an opportunity to position the university, literally, to better contribute its expertise to national- and international-policy discussions. He emphasized that the school won’t be decamping from its main campus in Baltimore, but that the purchase will give it a more pronounced presence in D.C., which several colleges, including New York University, Arizona State University, and others, have sought to leave their mark on.

Making this acquisition possible is a string of wealthy donors that the university has been cultivating for some time. Daniels confirmed that Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire philanthropist and a Johns Hopkins alum, will be contributing to the purchase. The remainder of the money will come from the university’s budget and the sale of the institution’s other four properties in the city. Daniels did not disclose how much financial support the university will be receiving from Bloomberg, who has donated billions of dollars to Johns Hopkins over the years and announced a $1.8 billion donation to the school in November. (His contribution to this project will be separate from the November donation.) Daniels did add, however, that Bloomberg is not the only philanthropist who will be financially supporting the purchase.

“This was a difficult decision, but it was the responsible one,” Jan Neuharth, the chair and CEO of the Freedom Forum, the organization that runs the Newseum, said in a statement. “With today’s announcement, we can begin to explore all options to find a new home in the Washington, DC area.” As the deal is ironed out and finalized, all of the Newseum’s artifacts will be archived. The sale of the Newseum, a shrine to journalism, comes as more than 1,000 journalists have been laid off across the country this week. Several writers, most notably Jack Shafer, have argued that instead of purchasing the behemoth space back in 2008, the Freedom Forum should have used its money to hire, fund, and advocate for journalists.

The deal is not yet final, as the university needs to get approval for government permits to convert the space for academic use. But in a letter to the campus community, Daniels wrote that “Johns Hopkins’ acquisition of the building also provides financial support for the Freedom Forum’s vitally important First Amendment mission.” The School of Advanced International Studies, which has been located in D.C. for decades, will anchor the university’s offerings in the city. “This is a great moment for us” to really add to the public-policy debate, Daniels told me. But it is also a power move for a university that ping-pongs in and out of the top-10 rankings—one that may lead more students to salivate over the school, and improve its status.